U.S. Senate chews on major overhaul of food-safety laws

Great Falls Tribune

by Bart Jansen and Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — Even before a massive recall of tainted eggs in August, Congress was looking to toughen food-safety regulations with more inspections and mandatory, rather than voluntary, recalls.

But as the Senate debates a winning recipe, disputes are forming over what would be the most significant changes in foodsafety legislation in decades.

Advocates say the law needs updating because 76 million people get sick — and 5,000 die — from food-borne illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For too long, the headlines have told the story of why this measure is so urgently needed — food-borne illness outbreaks, product recalls and Americans sickened over the food they eat,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

House lawmakers approved their version of food-safety legislation in July 2009, but action in the Senate is unlikely before the November elections.

The legislation is significant for Montana, which produced more than $2.5 billion in agricultural commodities in 2009. Top commodities included wheat ($950 million), cattle ($896 million) and barley ($190 million). Montana is the nation’s third-largest producer of wheat.

While supportive of the general bill, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wants to make sure the proposed reg-ulations don’t unduly burden small farmers, specifically those below $500,000 in annual sales. Those small operations made up about 96 percent of all the farms in Montana in 2007.

Tester said if those farmers aren’t exempted from the paperwork and regulation proposed in this bill, many of them would get out of the business and sell to large interests.

“I think it would absolutely discourage (them) and would con solidate agriculture more,” he said. “I think we need to go in the other direction.”

Some consumer groups oppose the exemption, saying the public should expect safe food no matter who produces it. But small farmers, who often sell directly to people at open markets, already are covered by state and local regulations, and Tester said consumers do have an option to inspect their products first-hand.

“If I’m going out and buying food from somebody who raises it themselves, I’ll ask them all the questions. And we’ll look at the food,” said Tester, an organic farmer from Big Sandy. “Besides that, there’s a pride of ownership that doesn’t happen when that food leaves the (farm) and goes to some big old processing plant that ships (nationwide).”

Food safety became more urgent with the August egg recall, a response to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,500 people. A House committee hearing on the outbreak is scheduled for Tuesday.

Progress has been slower in the Senate. But Harkin and key Republicans announced a compromise Aug. 12 that would cost $1.4 billion over five years. That compromise would: ãGive the Food and Drug Administration authority to order food recalls if companies fail to voluntarily recall tainted food.

Set FDA safety standards for produce, by commodity.

Create FDA regulations for sanitary food transportation.

Establish FDA pilot projects to better track where fruits and vegetables come from.

“We need additional resources. We need additional authorities,” Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said in a series of interviews during the egg crisis.

The FDA didn’t inspect more than half of eligible food facilities during a five-year period, according to an April report by the inspector general in the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of facilities rose from 59,000 in 2004 to 68,000 in 2008. But inspections dropped from 17,000 to 15,000 during that period.

“The pending Senate food-safety bill would put FDA in the business of preventing outbreaks, rather than trying to deal with them after people get sick,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union.

The August egg recall is just one example of food-related health threats recent years.

An outbreak of salmonella from peanuts in late 2008 and early 2009 killed nine people. And in mid-2008, more than 1,300 people ingested an unusual strain of salmonella that at first was thought to have come from tomatoes but was later found to have originated in Serrano peppers imported from Mexico.

Currently, FDA officials can order mandatory recalls of only four product categories — infant formula, medical devices, human tissue products and tobacco products.

In 2008, a company reportedly refused to recall cookies contaminated with melamine, which causes kidney problems. Instead, the company quietly withdrew the cookies from the market without publicizing the reason, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Several Democrats, aside from Tester, want to make changes to the bill pending in the Senate: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. wants to ban bisphenol A (BPA) — linked to cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity and miscarriage — from use in baby bottles, cups or formula.

“Because of their smaller size and stage of development, babies and children are particularly at risk from the harmful effects of BPA,” Feinstein said.

And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., offered a separate food-safety bill Sept. 13 that would impose a 10year prison term — rather than the civil fines in place now — on people convicted of knowingly poisoning the food supply.

“Most people will pay a fine, and they consider that the price of doing business,” Leahy said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Thursday that it’s unlikely the Senate will debate the bill before the election because of opposition from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Coburn objects to expanding authority of the FDA, an agency that auditors have criticized as disjointed and inefficient. Coburn also insisted that the legislation’s cost be offset with savings elsewhere in the budget rather than adding it to the deficit.

“Without paying for this bill, at best we are just passing it for a press release and at worst, we shackle the FDA with unfunded mandates,” Coburn said.